In defense of constructive vandalism and other ways of reclaiming our campus

“What’s with all the skunks,” painted on the side of Hillcrest last week.

Our campus is perfect.

Our institution manicures every blade of grass, coordinates every sign on every building, has built or renovated almost every building since the advent of the 21st century (with the glaring exception, ironically, of the architecture and design building), has commissioned every piece of art and keeps them in pristine condition. Our “student union” has the atmosphere of a high-end bar and grill. There is not a piece of trash on the ground. Not a smudge on a wall. Not a spot of chipped paint on a banister or molding.

But I pose the question: Is our campus too perfect?

For example, did anyone else find the “vandalism” on the side of Hillcrest last week really refreshing? It wasn’t vicious or explicit; it simply said, “What’s with all the skunks.” And in painting that, students reclaimed a wall of this institution by making it a little bit imperfect.

If you’ll allow me to digress, I’ve been thinking lately about the countless conversations I’ve had with people at this school who constantly feel pressure to appear well-adjusted and happy all of the time. Many people feel there is no space at Middlebury to be a mess and not okay. At such a high-pressure institution and during such a tumultuous time in our lives, I think we all feel less than 100% multiple times a week. But when someone asks how you are doing, how often is it possible to honestly respond “pretty shitty”? Or at least to not add the qualifier “but it’ll be fine!”. For many of us, to respond honestly feels like whining and putting a burden on the other person– it makes us feel high maintenance. It also reveals a vulnerability that’s often hard to show on a campus full of such talented and successful peers. Hopefully you have some friends who are close enough that you feel comfortable with them in whatever emotional state you are in, but you would be surprised how many people don’t.

To connect this back to my initial point, I pose another question. Do the beautiful buildings we study and eat in every day have something to do with the pressure we feel to carry ourselves in such a way? And do they affect the relationship we have with this campus? I mean, it’s hard to be vulnerable in a place that doesn’t feel like your own, and how can such a preened environment ever be such a space?

So I am curious: would anything change if more student-made murals adorned the walls of buildings (both Community Council Student Co-Chair candidates expressed interest in addressing this during their campaign earlier this year—I hope they do)? If the sidewalks had more chalk on them (thanks to whoever put the chalk board up next to the entrance to Proctor last year btw)? If there was more sharpie the bathroom stall doors? If the café in the library wasn’t so sterile? If the murals in the basement of Forrest weren’t painted over? If our campus had more gritty venues for shows? If lounges in dorms actually felt lived in? If Crossroads Café and the Grille had some natural light and cozy couches and chairs? If a few walls on campus were designated for student graffiti art and stenciling?

Why is the Gamut Room the coziest place to hang out on campus? Because it’s a little pocket that students have taken ownership over. Students painted it, the furniture is not from the institution, and lamps light the room instead of overhead florescent bulbs. It’s truly student-run.

Now, I’m not advocating vandalizing our campus in a harmful way and I don’t mean to disrespect the custodial and grounds staff who do such an amazing job each day. But are there ways that students can reclaim some of the campus from the institution? If that happened, would we have a healthier community? Would we feel more comfortable and carry ourselves in a less forced way? Would we no longer feel the pressure to be as perfect as the buildings we walk around in every day?

The recent Hillcrest paint job was a great example of what I’m talking about. To help answer their question, I heard there is a correlation between the warm winter last year and the amount of skunks running around this fall (they are everywhere, aren’t they?). But regardless, those Hillcrest painters made this campus a little less of an institution and a little more of a community of Middlebury students.


28 thoughts on “In defense of constructive vandalism and other ways of reclaiming our campus

  1. I somewhat agree with this, I just wonder if injecting grit into the campus in designated areas might feel just as artificial as all the upkeep currently does. I wonder if the artificial feeling has more to do with the nature of the isolated liberal arts campus itself. Or maybe the generic values of the general student body. To be clear, I’m all for vandalism but even this feels a little half hearted.

  2. I think you’re spot on that this campus could afford to feel more lived in. The renovations and new construction of the last few decades that you alluded to all seem to have been designed more to impress than for comfort or usability. The “living room” in Brooker comes to mind, where the 20 ft ceilings, cold slate floors and egregiously institutional fluorescent lighting (which will never be extinguished so long as “fire code” reigns supreme) make it feel better suited for a bar mitzvah after party than sitting in front of the fire with a few friends and a few beers.

    However, I don’t think endorsing vandalism of a multimillion dollar building and a paragon of environmental sustainability on college campuses is the best route to take. Culture (whatever exactly that means) comes from a lot of places. Many of them are constructive and productive rather than destructive and costly. There’s little doubt that Midd needs a cultural renovation to complement (or else counter) its recent and ongoing physical renovation — let’s try to make it happen in collaboration with the administration, trustees and donors. If you listen to what Ron has to say, they seem to understand.

    Finally, be careful what you say about Johnson — I’d hate it if they think we want it renovated! (from an architecture major)

  3. Just saw the guy who has to clean up the constructive vandalism…looked like fun but no one wanted to help… weird

  4. luke, thanks for allowing middkids to be human! we aren’t perfect, and we can’t do everything, and i love that you are starting an open, honest dialogue. i think vandalism is a pretty tricky issue, but it does speak to the larger facade of this school– it might just have to crack open and go crazy once in a while.

  5. And I quote-“For example, did anyone else find the “vandalism” on the side of Hillcrest last week really refreshing? It wasn’t vicious or explicit; it simply said, “What’s with all the skunks.”

    For calling yourself ‘alternative news’, you’re missing part of the story, the vicious explicit part. Some of the landscapers in the torrential early friday morning rain had to go up to Hillcrest and remove the two dead skunks that were taped to the wall to accompany the lettering that was so “refreshing”. That’s the way to treat your beautiful campus.

    And aren’t the skunks everyone is complaining about injecting some “randomness” into your sterile campus you find so objectionable?

  6. I am embarrassed by my fellow students’ indulgent, entitled, perspective. Vandalism is good? Where were you raised? With what values? Creative work yes; but vandalism…why? There must be a lot of emptiness around here if one has to justify these acts as somehow necessary. Pointing fingers elsewhere is more of the same. I agree with the staff member, though I am embarrassed that this commentary passes as something progressive or good.

    • I agree that destroying or defacing college property is completely unacceptable and cannot be validated by any level of intellectualism. However, I think we can give Luke the benefit of the doubt that he does not intend to explicitly endorse this act but rather the spirit under which he presumes it was undertaken.

  7. Staff member,

    I wasn’t aware there were actually skunks on the side of Hillcrest, that’s terrible. I’m sure Luke was similarly not aware of this nor was this endorsing those actions.

  8. First of all, I obviously had no idea, and I don’t think a lot of people did (although I’m not trying to make an excuse for not doing a better job to find out what exactly happened), about the dead skunks taped to the wall– that’s clearly inappropriate and disrespectful to whoever had to clean it up, and does undermine an aspect of my argument.

    And no, I’m not explicitly endorsing vandalism, I recognize what messy business it is and how it can affect many people and in ways that are not acceptable. But I’m interested in the act of student ownership over a space and the total departure from the institution inherent in a constructive act of vandalism. And I’m interested in the institutional obsession with keeping our campus flawless and all the resources that this obsession requires, which the administration will fling at something like harmless vandalism (dead skunks are NOT an example of this) to have it taken down right away, and the effect that obsession has on our community. And that raises a question, is there such thing as acceptable vandalism? Or maybe a better question is, could there be some value in the student ownership that vandalism represents despite the repercussions it inevitably entails? I think it’s at least worth thinking about and discussing.

    And I list many other examples of ways to get more student owned spaces on campus, and there are many more I don’t mention. If you have some better ideas, please comment with them.

    Finally, Parker I see your point about collaborating with the administration instead of vilifying them, and I think they do have a role and many resources to address this problem of the “unlivability” of our campus. But at the same time, I feel like you have to be careful, because it seems whenever the institution gets too involved, the life gets sucked out of it, whether its Commons sponsored events, or admin sponsored task forces, or “student spaces” created by the institution. Middlebury put a lot of money into building the Grille, but why was the impromptu concert in the basement of brooker last Saturday night infinitely better than anything that’s ever happened at the grille? Because grille events feel like part of the institution where as the brooker concert came organically from students. So maybe what I’m getting at is more student inspired and driven constructive injections of culture on our campus, especially in the spaces we inhabit. I think that would profoundly affect the health of our community and the way we feel and act in this environment. But If its doesn’t come organically from the students I fear the half-halfheartedness and artificiality the first commenter mentions.

  9. Wow. It must be really hard living on a campus that provides you with great housing, as much food as you can eat, and a beautiful VT setting (complete with gorgeous changing leaves and your own mountain for skiing). Please, let’s just put some murals on the walls and everyone will be okay. Clearly that’s how we make a safe and better community.

    • I guess what I’m saying is yeah, we have all of these amazing things and we are incredibly privileged to be here at Midd, but even so, many people in this community are frustrated with the way they feel forced to act here and the lack of vibrancy and engagement in the community. I think that’s worth discussing and thinking about. And I think that this can be addressed while still appreciating everything we have and everything that goes into making a place like Middlebury possible.

      By focusing on “some murals on the wall’ you are missing the point. The point is maybe the institution taking a step back and having more student inspired and owned spaces is a way to address the frustrations felt in the community, and yeah that could possibly manifest itself in student murals, among other things. For example, I think the mural that went up in proctor went along way in changing that space for the better, and its value shouldn’t be discounted.

    • “Many people in this community are frustrated with the way they feel forced to act here and the lack of vibrancy and engagement in the community.”

      Really?? Middlebury is the most vibrant and engaged community I have ever known, and it was a privilege to live, eat, and work on its beautiful campus. There are incredible opportunities for creative outlet, you just have to spend a little time thinking about them. Don’t assume the administration won’t listen if you propose a new creative space. Look at what Kate Lupo did with the back of Wright Theater ( – that’s not a “student space” like the one you’re calling for, but it was a student idea that has contributed to the originality of the beauty of campus.

      You get four years. Sit down, think up an idea (and not ill-thought-out “constructive vandalism” that causes a headache for the people who dedicate long hours in all sorts of weather to keeping Middlebury looking amazing), and make it happen. The students who come after you will thank you. And so will the administration – at the end of the day, they’re the ones who have dedicated their lives to making Middlebury College a happy, healthy, vibrant, and beautiful place, and they’re certainly not to blame for some vague sense of collective ennui.

  10. I woud LOVE to see more student artwork on campus. Specifically in the library in the café. I pursued this initiative really hard as a sophomore and eventually got put in contact with the architect who basically told me that since the building was still considered “intellectual property” of the firm, no one has the right to alter it since the colors were specifically chosen. Yet I believe that having spaces like the Gamut room in places like the library is much more conducive to studying because it places students in a more comforting and stimulating environment. I know that not everyone likes the Proctor mural but I love it, and I was quite concerned when I spoke with the director for art in public places and was told that in a few years it might be painted over. What does that say about the value the administration gives our desires to create an environment that helps us feel more grounded in reality and not in a pristine sterile institution. Granted, I believe Middlebury is beautiful and I appreciate it everyday, but there is something to be said about the intuitive and heartfelt comfort afforded to students when they are surrounded by creations of their peer groups.

  11. So aside from Gracie’s example of being somewhat thwarted by an architect of a renovated space (and that person was not even an evil administrator!), who is stopping you, Luke and like-minded Middkids, from proposing oversight of space on campus? Seriously? All I have ever heard is that the administration, or at least the president, very often supports student requests (too freely, according to some faculty) . What is stopping students from doing multiple Brooker concerts or similar events? Or proposing having some control of specific spaces on campus? This would be a most legitimate proposal. Isn’t Crossroads Cafe now run by students? Why isn’t the full space run by students? And what other spaces might be good spaces for students to control that they don’t? Isn’t the building with the Storm Cafe along the Otter Creek space that students oversee? The one with the independent student gallery? Push the administration to give over space for students to run, but don’t advocate destroying property because you somehow link (and blame) the upkeep of the campus to “feeling frustrated with they way [you] feel forced to act here.” What an incredible cop-out. And illogical.

  12. I want to second the notion that everyone should read the Gadfly article linked to above ( I basically think it’s the best editorial on a campus issue written in the last few years.

    Most truly student-space (space for which students are responsible) has been relegated to basements (Gamut Room, Bike Shop, LoFo before it was white-washed). I don’t count Crossroads–sure the original design and operations are run by students, but administrative influence there is too high (students support the Gamut Room with their activities fee and are relatively free of administrative control once the Gamut Room’s budget passes–Crossroads is funded entirely differently and [I think] needs to break even financially). Students should really try to develop their dorm common rooms as student space. Imagine if common rooms were each unique spaces that students developed over time and had their own unique histories. I guarantee there would be less dorm-damage in these areas. They would be space that students were protective of and give character to entire dorms.

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  14. How do you tape a skunk to a wall? That’s either some serious duct tape or a tiny skunk. It appears the Solar Decathalon really did improve the engineering skills of Middlebury students

  15. More seriously, I thank Luke for finding words to bring this controversial sentiment onto the radar here.

    For me, no, there is no excuse for vandalism. It’s a crime, it’s worthy of suspension, it’s whatever it should be, that’s how things work. But heaven forbid that any of you Middlebury students have a stick so far up your asses that you think vandalism (or theft, or rape, or blatant dishonesty) doesn’t exist at Middlebury. Because it does. Vandalism just happens to be the most blatant of them all. Sorry, but Midd ain’t better than anywhere else, necessarily.

    What I’m saying is: don’t get your panties (or boxer briefs) all up in a bunch cuz some lunatic decided to spray yellow paint over some staircase in Ross. Because meanwhile, every week, (and excuse the irony)–someone’s getting raped, attempting suicide, dealing coke, or drinkin’ and drivin’. While the rest of y’all is cheating on tests (and on your partners). At Middlebury.

    Stop savin’ face and dig a lil’ deeper, nahimsayin? Cuz otherwise, you guys deserve all the the skunks in the world hanging from your LEED Platinum-certified walls.

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